The European Union’s (EU) role as a global actor has significantly diminished in the eyes of Iran’s political elite and its public more broadly, due to its lack of strategic independence as seen in its failed attempt to circumvent the American policy of maximum pressure on Iran. This will affect Iran’s policy vis-à-vis European powers under President Raisi, who is believed to have a generally tougher approach towards Western powers. While a huge shift in Iran’s calculus is unlikely under the new administration due to Iran’s consensus-based strategic decision-making processes, Raisi’s “revolutionary” worldview and the Iranian conservatives’ well-known distrust of the West nevertheless point to a more assertive and less compromising Iranian approach towards the EU. This is especially the case when it comes to Iran’s main sources of power: its ballistic missile program and regional policy and influence.
While the Rouhani administration’s constructive engagement with the West led in 2015 to the Iranian nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that same deal’s fate casts a shadow of doubt on the outcome of any meaningful engagement with Western powers. Ironically, while the United States (US) was the party violating the deal, the Europeans were to receive the bulk of Iranian criticism, as their minimal efforts such as introducing the INSTEX mechanism, a financial instrument aimed to bypass sanctions, failed to provide any tangible results. As such, while trying to preserve the deal after Trump’s withdrawal, the Europeans found themselves under immense Iranian criticism due to their inability to withstand US maximum pressure in practice.
Many Iranians saw the European approach as nothing more than a division of labor with the US—a good cop, bad cop trick, so to say. Even the EU refusal to support the US triggering of ‘the snapback”—a mechanism meant to re-instate all lifted UN sanctions on Iran once proven in violation of the nuclear deal—did not change that view. Additionally, the EU’s silence over the US assassination of General Qassem Solaimani—considered an Iranian national hero—further weakened the EU’s leverage with Iranians. Raisi’s power comes from a faction that has criticized each and every step leading up to the nuclear deal and the US and EU approach thereafter. As such, Iranian conservative circles’ negative views of the West have even worsened over the past few years and have now come to the helm in Tehran with Raisi’s election.
Mutual expectations are to direct much of the Iranian-European relations during the Raisi tenure. Iranian talks on the EU’s role in the JCPOA and its policy towards Iran are likely to overshadow Iran’s approach towards EU powers moving forward. EU’s ability aside, Iranians have voiced serious doubts not only on the EU’s ability, but further its willingness to defy the US maximum pressure campaign to salvage the nuclear deal. Given this wariness, Iranian expectations under Raisi are likely to be the same as they were under Rouhani—namely full implementation of the JCPOA and giving Iran what it already earned under the deal. Iran further expects the West to make up for violating the JCPOA and causing serious economic challenges in the country. These expectations include talks on compensation for previous violations and guarantees to bar future violations.
Aside from Iran’s full compliance with the JCPOA and extending the so-called sunset clauses, a provision that eliminates restrictions in a few years if not extended, the Europeans are expecting Tehran to agree to negotiate on its defensive capabilities as well as its regional policy and influence. Considering the lack of precedent for a one-sided conventional arms control agreement, Iran refuses to talk on its ballistic missiles program. Other reasons for their refusal include the fact that it is a defensive capability and countries neither expose those capabilities, nor limit them. Iran still remembers how it was left alone when in dire need of deterrent capabilities during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, with main European and Arab countries as well as the US supporting their foe in Iraq’s Ba’ath regime. Any compromise on Iran’s defensive capabilities will come at odds with a sensitive national principle of dealing with world powers on equal footing—the Ezzat (dignity) principle in foreign policy as articulated by the Iranian Supreme Leader.
Regionally, however, Iranians seem to be more open to discussions on equal footing, not on Iran’s regional influence, but on solutions for regional crises. Tehran has been calling for regional dialogue and proposed initiatives such as the HOPE initiative for the Persian Gulf security, and the formation of a regional security dialogue among local actors in the region. Iran has also been involved in negotiations with non-regional actors on regional issues including with the EU—this includes the Astana Process and the Iran-EU talks on Yemen. As such, a parallel setting for negotiations on regional security—especially with neighboring countries—would be welcomed by Tehran. However, Tehran rejects linking those talks with a previously signed deal—the JCPOA- which it sees as an already earned deal, though sabotaged.
After Biden’s election, Iranians expected the US and its European allies to unconditionally return to the JCPOA. The West, instead, has delayed Iran’s demand of compensation for the economic hardship they endured in order to not complicate a swift and clean return to the JCPOA. The EU rhetoric on Iran, in fact, has turned harder, demanding more from Iran not only on extending the so-called sunset clauses of the JCPOA, but also on Iran’s regional policy and its defense capabilities—all refused by Iran so far. This demanding position drove an angry Iran to elevate the level of its uranium enrichment to 20% and then 60% with its president indicating a probable further move to 90% in the future and further pushed the Iranian parliament to ratify a bill to set a deadline for Iran’s commitment to the additional protocol—which Iran was observing voluntarily as part of its JCPOA commitments. The Raisi administration is likely to keep pushing back against the continuation of maximum pressure and EU’s hardened position by downgrading Iran’s commitments in the JCPOA even further.
With the maximum pressure policy in place, the Iranians have also been pushing back against US regional policy, which the Raisi administration is likely to double down on provided the current deadlock in nuclear negotiation continues. Generally, the Raisi administration approach vis-à-vis the EU and the West more broadly is “pressure against pressure” and “compliance for compliance”—with Raisi calling for US and EU return to the JCPOA. Therefore, the EU’s hardened position is likely to be faced with a harder Iranian position. With previous compromises leading to nothing but more pressure and sanctions, Iran has run out of room for further compromise.